Three Blocks on Washington Avenue

New Geography has just reported that a new Bureau of the Census report has found that exurban growth rates continue to far outstrip urban growth. While this finding might seem somewhat shocking in the face of nascent urbanism upswelling throughout most major midwestern cites and loft developments arising from Salt Lake City to Peoria, the scale at which urban redevelopment is occurring is not and cannot match the scale of greenfields development. The reason should be obvious. It is far easier to sprout houses on 400 acres of farm field without any neighbors or existing infrastructure then it is to assemble a massive urban tract for development. While I will not spend much time discrediting the author's slant (after all, the reviews of his book on amazon do that quite efficiently), attempting to deliberately ignore these differences in scale in order to deflate the significance of new urban population growth is a cynical manipulation of analysis at best. Positive Population Change for Cities and Outlying Areas.

Whatever the case, many Americans are continuing to seek their dreams in suburban and exurban areas. With the recent onslaught of coverage on suburban foreclosures it is germane to ask what will the suburban landscape look like in half a century? Will foreclosed houses become productive gardens for remaining residents? That possibility, while alluring, seems unlikely without concerted effort and regulation. It is more realistic to assume that the suburbia of the future will look like the cities of the present. With these thoughts in my head I decide to take a walk.

Washington Avenue is one of the significant streets of Saint Louis. It spans almost eight miles with fits and starts, beginning at the riverfront and ending in the streetcar suburb of University City outside the city limits. It is best known as the main artery of the former Garment District which has been redeveloped as a concentration of lofts and restaurants. Further west Washington Avenue (neé Terrace) is one of the most exclusive gated streets in the city. In between these two poles, and just north of the posh Central West End, Washington holds clues to the future of the suburb.

Like many thoroughly urban areas, Washington was once a suburb itself. Extending beyond the limits of city development across a wide area known as the Grand Prairie the development of the street was made possible by a new type of transportation: the electric streetcar. A number of car lines ran nearby, including the #10 on Delmar, the #15 Hodiamont on a private right of way several blocks north, and another line running on Olive from Lindell to Walton. [For the 1910 Map, click here.] Much of Washington was built as speculative development, and as we walk through the intersection of Walton and Washington we will see a perfect example.

4617-4641 Washington Avenue.
These two family flats were built as part of a row of eight in 1901. Their lot division, atypically small even for this area, was the result of being near the junction of Washington with Olive and the streetcar line. At the time these flats were built, land value was a direct function of distance from fixed-route public transportation. It was only with the switch to buses and the uncertainty of a potentially variable route that this relation was severed.

Despite alternating brick and stone units, common features such as the placement of the turret and Jefferson windows above the porch tie the composition together. Two units have been demolished and the windowless one is in the clutches of Bowood Gardens, but despite the removal of integral context the power of the alternating repetition still makes for an excellent streetwall. Compare this image mentally with a typical modern suburban street. If every third house was replaced with an overgrown lot, how would it compare with the above image?

Wash Walt Taylor

Looking at the 1909 Sanborn map of the block it is evident just how much urban fabric the area bounded by Walton, Washington, Taylor and Delmar has lost. All of the red markings denote buildings replaced by vacant lots or parking, the green marks denote buildings replaced by more recent buildings. While I was unable to find any information on it, the loss of the courtyard apartment at Taylor and Washington was tragic. Despite all the losses, the relatively narrow block depths and remaining buildings still manage to keep the block from feeling like a wasteland. With suburban lots typically three to five times wider than these lots, the loss of a single foreclosed house to fire or demolition would have a much more severe impact on surrounding values on the cul-de-sac or road.

I continue walking east on Washington, crossing Taylor and then Newstead. The block of Washington between Newstead and Pendleton has seen some of the most dramatic loss of urban fabric.

Wash Newstead Pendleton

While this block has retained the wide-lot platting that belies its upper class origins, most of the original houses have been demolished. On the south side eight remain standing, on the north side only six. In contrast to the suburban style infill built on the south side in 1997 across two lots, the 2006 infill homes by X3 Developers are striking in their competency.

Three infill houses on Washington by X3 Developments.

Built at 4341-4347 Washington to replace three houses dating to the mid-1890's that had unfortunately been lost, these three infill units notably carry the masonry entirely around the building (unlike some recent failures). While the arched windows on 4345 are kitchy and not architecturally appropriate to Saint Louis, the flanking models have a nicely understated referencing of Richardsonian Romanesque. Since these sold for half a million dollars apiece, I feel compelled to note that the hipped roofs are a let down, the tectonics are too flat without more complicated brickwork and the stoop/stair combination is a blatant and unnecessary reference to brownstones over 1,000 miles away. While I would prefer for infill to refer to surrounding structures but ditch the weak historicism like Anthony Robinson's recent projects I would still not be disappointed if they filled in the rest of the empty lots on this block with more considered variations of these.

The true gem on this block is not the new infill, but an old remnant.
Service Station at Pendleton and Washington.

This service station was built to replace a mansion sometime in the 1920s to serve the growing motoring demand of the wealthy residents in surrounding neighborhoods. The beautiful black Vitrolite facade probably dates from the 1950s. Note the elegant reveals of glass block at the sides of the facade as well as the combination of green window mullion and chrome. The architecture of this facade displays a confidence not found even in the half million dollar infill houses. At the time of the facade installation this service station was a block away from the epicenter of St. Louis nightlife at Gaslight Square. The decline of Gaslight Square meant the decline of business for this little gas station. It served for a time as the home of Kugman Motors, but it has been vacant since at least 1989.

Wash Pendleton Whittier

The block of Washington between Pendleton and Olive has seen much change in the century since the Sanborn Map was complied. The failure of Gaslight Square led to the demolition of the north side of Olive between Newstead and Whittier in the early 1990s. As part of the Gaslight Square redevelopment Pendleton was realigned to connect with Boyle. This ironically eliminated the jog that gave Gaslight Square its name. The two institutions that anchored the block disappeared decades ago. Bishop Robertson Hall was a private Episcopalian school with a 2,000 volume library that closed in 1915. The Episcopalian nuns of the Good Shepard then moved to Baden. The more significant of the two, Hosmer Hall had been established as an elite girls school in 1884. Today it is remembered as the alma mater of poet Sara Teasdale and for infamously banning hair extensions in 1909. A decade after the World's Fair Hosmer Hall moved to Clayton. The school closed and sold their building to Clayton in 1936 and it became known as the Wydown School until it was raised and replaced in 1965 by the present Wydown Middle School.

The final stop on our walk is in front of one of my favorite buildings in Saint Louis. Often I daydream about having unlimited resources to realize any project in the city. While a part of me longs to save and rehabilitate the apartments at 5315 Cabanne, the building at 4005 Delmar, or maybe even the San Luis, only one house calls to me.

4243 Washington.

4243 Washington avenue is unique. For every building in Saint Louis exploding with ornate terra cotta or wrought iron ornament there are many buildings that derive their aesthetic power from restrained geometries that presage the modern movement by decades. In that class 4243 Washington stands out with an unprecedented geometric purity that reinforces its three powerful stories.

4243 Washington.

Built in 1891 on the northern edge of the Central West End 4243 Washington anticipated a density and level of income that was never to coalesce. Unlike the majority of the houses on the block 4243 had three full stories combining for 5,200 square feet on a standard 50'-0"x150'-0" lot. In 1909 it was the only house on the block to have a two story carriage house. It is unclear when the carriage house was demolished, but a garage constructed in 1994 now has taken its place.

By the late 1950's the neighborhood had changed. Upper and upper middle class residents had either retreated into the private streets to the south or left the city entirely. According to a twenty year resident of the block named Lee, during the heyday of Gaslight Square older neighbors recollected Tina Turner stayed with a friend at 4243 when she was avoiding Ike Turner. After the fall of Gaslight Square Lee recollected that there was a lot of crime and prostitution in the area. As buildings burned and were demolished most of the residents left. 4243 survived under the same owner as the neighborhood got quieter and quieter. In November 2003 long-time owner Louise Holland sold 4243 for $125,000. New owners Ralph and Katrina Russell bought the property and began to reahab the house. Unfortunately they lost it in foreclosure in 2007 while in the process of replacing the windows. The empty shell was then sold for $79,000 to a Kevin Settle who sold it to M&J Enterprise for $95,000. The new owners have not paid property taxes since they have purchased the building.

If ever there was a building uniquely suited for a vacant building registry, stabilization, seizure, and resale this is it! However, even boarding second floor windows (let alone tarping roofs!) is "too expensive" despite the far greater economic and environmental costs of demolition. Disregard that: in this city, like in our equally visionary sister city, demolition means jobs.

Stoplight Urbanism Pt.II: The current condition

Today I will continue with the second part of my essay on the effect of traffic control on urbanism and my modest anarchic proposal for change.

To recap the first part:

For millenia movement through cities and villages was regulated by mutual interest and rooted in a notion of common-law that began to be restricted with the enclosure movements of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Under such a system no traveller had a superior right over another; no person or vehicle had dominance and all spatial claims to the space of the road were recognized to have equal value.
While in many western countries the establishment of the primacy of the automobile led to a drastic shift in custom and space, in developing nations the assimilation of motorized transportation in society has been unable to change customs regarding road use. Such intense systems of concession, predicated in intense interaction, result in the ability to change formation instantaneously and avoid obstacles and stoppages as they occur. These fluid dynamics utilize the whole of human reaction and intellect and exhibit a complex relation of communication and instinct not present in the smartest mechanical control.

At the dawn of the twentieth century urban areas exploded with growth as millions abandoned rural lives to seek fortune in the industrialized cities of the world. With the overwhelming concentration of people in small geographic areas, the sixty years spanning the years between 1890 and 1950 would see an obsession with congestion as the gravest threat to cities. In some cases, although technological innovations had allowed such congestion to occur, technology was again proposed as the answer. Thomas Edison predicted the wide-scale adoption of automobiles would “so relieve traffic as to make Manhattan Island resemble the ‘The Deserted Village’” [Fogelson, 253]. Others sought less sweeping measures to fight congestion through regulation and traffic control.

Today the concept of right of way is so ingrained in our daily lives that it is shocking to learn that this is a construct of the past century. Initially such rights were based on arbitrary designations that varied erratically between municipalities. In a parochial age each municipality prescribing right of way to either North/South or East/West traffic [Todd, 10] may have been a plausible solution. However over twenty five years after the adoption of standard time in a society of increasing mobility, such an answer was destined to be unsuccessful. The interim solution came in a custom borrowed from France in which vehicles defer to the vehicle on their right. Such a system still relies on informal means and becomes increasingly difficult when applied to the major intersections being constructed as part of ambitious street widening projects. By the 1920’s the current system of rights of way predicated on a deference of minor roads to major roads was in firmly in place. Since that time the only alteration has been the use of traffic light systems weighted to give precedence to the major thoroughfare.

"Only" by BrittneyBush on Flickr

The first modern traffic light was deployed in Salt Lake City in 1912 [Wikipedia, 1]. Although a direct refinement of the London Signal of 1868, the traffic light would undergo a decade of nearly continuous refinement in form and operation until the first interconnected automatic three color traffic lights were installed in Houston.

The traffic lights that we encounter every day are similar to the 1922 Houston traffic lights, with a small degree of technological refinement. Interestingly, several of the most prevalent innovations are designed to subvert the very concept of a signalling system. Most common are the walk light buttons that advance the traffic light cycle to allow pedestrians to cross in a timely manner. Another common subversion is the actuated signal in which embedded sensors in the pavement detect the weight of a waiting vehicle and override arterial right of way at non-peak times. More controversial are devices that allow emergency vehicles to bypass red lights by emitting an infrared signal; predictably such devices were manufactured and sold to general consumers and, as a result, federal law now criminalizes the possession of such devices for consumer use.

Traffic management center in the Twin Cities. Image from Minnesota DOT

The most advanced systems of traffic lights are coordinated control systems that utilize computers to enable motorists on major thoroughfares to travel miles without encountering lights by adjusting for predicted speed or, in the most advanced systems, average speed as detected by numerous embedded sensors. These systems “signal the dream of the liberal state ... They work best when no one notices them, and when regulation becomes cooperation and facilitation”[Pile, 263]. One subset of such systems are centrally controlled systems (as made famous by the original Italian Job) where data and video are directed to command centers that control entire street networks throughout the city.

While refinements continue to advance the technology of traffic signalling, safety has not improved. More than three decades after the adoption of the traffic light there were still over ten traffic fatalities for every murder [Ross, 231] and this gap continued to widen, despite safer automotive design. Traffic signals are rendered unsafe by human psychology. Traffic light systems “make drivers go fast and keep close behind to the vehicle in front for fear of missing the green light” and furthermore cause drivers to cross intersections “with their eyes up in the air rather than on the road” [Todd, 11] The coordinated control systems previously discussed can actually encourage reckless driving by causing “drivers [to] use excessive speed in order to ‘make’ as many lights as possible” [Wikipedia, 10]. Additionally such systems have become the norm and are frequently demanded by residents leading to the chronic under-funding of local transportation agencies. In a recent survey “68 percent said they have... no documented management plan for their traffic signal operation” [U.S. Traffic Signals get Poor Grades, 1] resulting in the typically poor calibration of signals.

Traffic lights also contribute to more dangerous streets by altering the psychological and sociological relationships of drivers to their surroundings. The traffic light is responsible in large part for an abnormal conditioning of motorists. Traffic lights alter the standard control relationships seen in society for, once the visible police officer is replaced by the unseeing mechanical device, the “guilt and ... recognition of the gap between our actions and those of the ideal citizen” [Pile, 263] is lessened by proxy. This condition has recently given rise to the use of red-light cameras to remind motorists that traffic lights have all the authority and power of a live police officer. Another, more dangerous, conditioning resulting from acclamation to traffic lights is complacency. Drivers develop expectations for operating within the current system and that deprives them of the necessity to be aware.

"Playing in Traffic" by Geognerd on Flickr

It is assumed that merely following the rules should keep them safe. Of course when externalities inevitably arise drivers are ill-prepared to adapt.

Malfunctioning traffic light causes mayhem in Russia.

This complacency can be seen in the vast rise of alternative motoring activities such as grooming, eating, and cellular phone use while driving. While these behaviors are a result of expectations conditioned by the system, another problem lies in the conditioning of actions. In those rare occasions, such as power failures, when drivers must actively negotiate passage they are not confident in their abilities to physically negotiate and communicate with other drivers.

A second problematic result of modern traffic control should be plainly evident to anyone who has walked, cycled or run on public streets: The controlled situation of driving has resulted in a systemic aggrandizement of the driver over other forms of transportation. Modern right-of-way rules, one-way streets and traffic lights encourage “motorists to travel at high speed on urban arterial roads and intersections without looking for opposing traffic” [Todd, 11]. The physical and often psychological separation of thoroughfares into vehicular roads and pedestrian walkways or bicycle paths has caused the “driver to see that he or she has priority. And the child who forgets for a moment ... is a child in the wrong place” [Baker 2004, 2]. The conditioning leads to inadvertent or intentional arrogance on the part of drivers and, at its worst, is manifested in the much discussed phenomena of road rage.

The aggrandizement of the driver is mirrored in society at large as illegal traffic acts are “not stigmatized by the public as criminal” [Ross, 241] except in extreme cases of negligence and the majority of traffic crimes receive much more lenient sentencing than other categories such as drug or weapons offences. This situation has been examined through a Marxist lens by some who observe that because “the law is made and operated in the interests of the well-to-do,” then driving offenses such as speeding “are not ordinarily thought to ‘count’ as crimes” [Ross, 235].

In part III I will examine alternatives to structured traffic control and theorize an urbanism without stoplights.

Works Cited:

1. Baker, Linda. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” 25 October 2007. .

2. Fogelson, Robert M. Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, 1880-1950. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001. p, 253

3. “Report: U.S. Traffic Signals Get Poor Grades”. 25 October 2007. .

4. Ross, H. Lawrence. "Traffic Law Violation: A Folk Crime." Social Problems, Vol. 8. 1960-1961: 231-241.

5. Todd, Kenneth. “Traffic Control: An Exercise in Self-Doubt.” Regulation. Fall 2004: 10.

6. “Traffic Light”. 10 October 2007. Wikipedia. .

7. City A-Z: Urban Fragments. Ed. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift. New York: Routledge, 2000. p. 263.

So many shades of green (or how to get the green)

Avenida Luis Xavier, Curitiba Brazil by Mathieu Struck

Well, it is officially summer again and that means it is time for an annual ritual. No, not Naked Hiking Day which was notable this year for the supposed attendance of one governor. Rather, this week marks the onslaught of numerous new rankings of sustainable cities. While sustainability remains a term that, in its complexity, allows for astonishingly broad leeway, lists of sustainable cities even exceed that flexibility. While metrics for ranking sustainable cities may range from personal indoctrination to more objective analysis, there are of course a number of common finalists.

MotherNature Network listed their Top 10 Green US Cities today:

1. Portland, Oregon
2. San Francisco, California
3. Boston, Massachusetts
4. Oakland, California
5. Eugene, Oregon
6. Cambridge, Massachusetts
7. Berkeley, California
8. Seattle, Washington
9. Chicago, Illinois
10. Austin, Texas

On June 17th Treehugger listed their picks for 5 of the Greenest Cities in the World to Visit

1. Portland, Oregon
2. Freiburg, Germany
3. Zermatt, Switzerland
4. Montreal, Quebec, Canada
5. Austin, Texas, USA

While comparing an international green travel list to a national green city list is strictly a chronologically motivated artifice (much like apples and oranges or electric and diesel locomotives) certain commonalities are striking. The majority of the cities on the list are home to institutes of research and higher education which provide both a foundation for diverse and advanced economies. The majority of cities on the list are located on navigable bodies of water that may again serve in the future as thoroughfares for freight and goods. The majority of cities have carefully balanced bold political decisions, such as banning automobiles or plastic bags, with bold economic decisions such as the creation of large-scale alternative energy generation. These cities have also thoroughly embraced low-tech solutions such as tree planting and public composting. All cities on the list have championed transportation flexibility by facilitating widespread bicycling, developing walkability, and supporting public transportation.

The single most striking element shared by the majority of cities on the list was an educational component. While the majority of cities on the list exhibit higher than average socio-economic and educational statuses, such programs could prove even more vital for more average cities. An educated public is the cornerstone of sustainability. Without an understanding of the economic and environmental results of current lifestyles and an appreciation of the long term effects on the community any recycling program is doomed to fail. Furthermore, without education and appreciation of sustainable measures, even citizen-initiated progressive efforts are doomed to fail.

Another interesting point is that we must judge sustainability through the lens of cities. While there are dozens of lists of top "sustainable" or "green" cities there are virtually none for states, provinces or countries. This is especially interesting given the tenuous stance of cities in the United States. While Europe and Africa have strong traditions of city states (Venice and Carthage come to mind) cities have no legal basis within the U.S. Constitution. Rather the American city exists solely as a subunit of state government. Despite this subservient status, in the United States and in countries throughout the world, the city unit has played the primary role in the struggle for urban sustainability. While city administrations typically lack the technical proficiency and ability of bureaucrats at higher levels and often make corrupt and shortsighted decisions that impair future efforts, their smaller size typically makes them more responsive and often allows for greater flexibility in decision making than higher forms of government.

The downside to the primary role of the city in sustainability is increasingly uncoordinated and cutthroat competition for green sector industries. As the carbon clock ticks, cities must keep themselves ahead of the curve in order to attract skilled residents and create new jobs. Cities will benefit from investment programs in existing industries as well; for every million dollars invested in retrofitting infrastructure and increasing existing energy efficiency, 22 new jobs are created. Furthermore, European companies like Siemens have capitalized on the slow response of United States industry towards sustainable products and stand to gain billions from world-wide bailout programs. A century ago the majority of light-rail infrastructure in the United States was manufactured by companies like the St. Louis Car Company .
St. Louis Car Company circa 1908

Today even the Metrolink trains operated in St. Louis are manufactured by Siemens. Since 1982 all new subway cars ordered for our nation's capitol have been manufactured overseas. While this phenomena is endemic across all industries, it points to a huge opportunity for American cities who are seeking to center their economic growth on sustainability. Many of the cities on the list above rank highly only because they have outsourced most of their manufacturing to India and China. Despite greening claims and endless restricted bike lanes no city can remain sustainable or think of self-sufficiency without an industrial base. Anything else will be a missed opportunity. The challenge assumed by the leading cities of the twenty first century is the balance of clean industry with waste remediation. After all, innovation is the foundation of sustainability and, while important, planting trees and recycling cans can only take you so far.

This WAS the future


"[w]e believe that the revitalized spirit of St. Louis as symbolized by the Gateway Arch and the new Busch Memorial Stadium and other progressive developments has shown that St. Louis is a city on the move and is rapidly growing toward becoming the center of progress in the Middle West."
-- Joseph Vatterott [in a Globe-Democrat article on the construction of the DeVille Motor Lodge]

Preservation board votes 3-2 to approve preliminary demolition review for The San Luis Apartments for a surface parking lot

It was a long and lively night night at 1015 Locust. In addition to the San Luis there were five other issues on the agenda. Beginning at 4pm the meeting finally adjourned with the decision at 10pm. Most of the people who packed the twelfth floor conference room had not eaten since lunch, but still they stayed to contribute to the process. Noticeably absent from the entire hearing were preservation board members Mary "One" Johnson, John Burse, David Visintainer and Terry Kennedy. Over twenty citizens spoke ranging from the project architect and the principal of Rosati-Kain high school (who needs 30 odd parking spaces for teenage girls so badly she intimated moving the school if demolition were to be denied) as well as residents and citizens from every stripe. A trump card for the diocese, the former building superintendent, inadvertently summed up the attitude of the applicants after his remarks stating
"When I look around this room I realize my Marine discharge card is older than most of the people in this room."

With this literal example of patrimonial superiority out of the way, other less blatant examples continued. It was extremely interesting to detect that Cultural Resources director Kate Shea, Christner Project Architect Dan Jay and Preservation Board chairman Richard Callow all referred to the architect of the building in question, Charles Colbert, as an "insignificant regional architect" despite Colbert's elevation to a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and career as Dean of Architecture at Tulane, Columbia, and Texas A&M. This message belies not only a smug superiority but a seemingly improper level of coordination between the applicant and those that must rule on the application. In addition the numbers used by Shea were dubious at best and considered restoration costs to be upwards of $300/sf. Testimony by Chicago-based developer Steve Anrod and local architect Paul Hohman quickly refuted these numbers.

[Architect Paul Hohman testifies before the preservation board]

[Developer Steve Anrod testifies before the preservation board]

[Lynn Josse testifies that the "green" surface parking lot does not meet existing zoning guidelines]

In my statement I underscored the vital role the preservation board plays in safeguarding what little urbanism remains in Saint Louis. I explicitly highlighted the importance of such areas to the future viability of Saint Louis:
"If Saint Louis is to remain a viable city in this century we must attract young educated orofessionals to the city and staunch the flow of educated Saint Louis youth to more vibrant cities around the country.

If we are to be more than our sister cities Detroit, Youngstown and Gary, Indiana [At this point Preservation Board Chairman Richard Callow, visibly agitated, interrupted me to put me on notice that this was my "one warning". I continued...]

We must directly compete with New York , San Francisco and Chicago. I entreat the preservation board to realize that it is the stewardship of the urbanism of neighborhoods like the Central West End and the preservation of their built density that will do more to raise the image and status of our 52nd most-important city than any chinese freight hub industrial development."

I continued by touching on the site of the Buckingham Hotel, still a surface lot almost 40 years later, the deleterious effect of the surface lot on the context of the urban pocket park proposed immediately north of the site, and the negative traffic impact the parking lot exit would have on Taylor Avenue.

[Parking lot architect Dan Jay issues a final rebuttal]

Despite Kate Shea's earlier assertion that the "basis in preservation law is economic reuse" Alderwoman Lyda Krewson demolished this statement by claiming in essence that since the diocese wouldn't sell or otherwise repair or redevelop the building the board should just approve demolition. This is a perilous stance for an Alderwoman who represents the most urban and intact areas of St. Louis and it is a stance which, once applied to powerful and monied interests throughout the city, will inevitably result in the destruction of what little remains of urbanism in St. Louis.

At around 9:45pm Ald. Phyllis Young was called on to introduce a motion to approve preliminary demolition review. The vote was as follows:

Anthony Robinson - Against
Melanie Fathman - Against
Phyllis Young - For
David Richardson - For
Richard Callow - For

In hindsight it is interesting to compare the outcomes for the last two items on the agenda. The previous item was a one story cottage rehab in the Fox Park Historic District. The owner, one Brian Dunn, had gone through proper channels to build a side porch but had installed three windows that were non-compliant according to the historic district code. As an employee for the city water department he did not have the resources necessary to replace the new windows with compliant windows with an arched upper sash. It was estimated these windows would cost in excess of $4000. He asked to retain his new windows or as a compromise he asked for forbearance as he could not afford to replace the windows and continue the project.

At one point Alderwoman Phyllis Young inquired about his current house in the Compton Heights neighborhood. He indicated that he was still months away from occupancy in the Fox Park house and that he was not sure what he would do with his mortgaged current residence when he moved. Young then intimated that he should sell his current residence to finance the windows for the project.

In other words, the diocese is allowed to refuse to maintain or sell a property. Based on those decisions they are granted preliminary approval to demolish a functional twelve story building for a surface parking lot while a homeowner struggling to rehabilitate a long derelict structure is harassed over the difference between three windows with an arched upper sash and windows with a half-round transom. It is good to see our elected officials and public stewards have the courage and vision to fight for the preservation of what really matters! With attitudes like these it is amazing we have any neighborhoods left.

Perhaps like Youngstown we will blindly continue to accept demolition until we have no unique city left to preserve. If Richard Callow and the city patrimony continue on the present path it may not be just a rhetorical overstatement.

Methods for increasing urban sustainability

#1 REUSE existing buildings and STOP privileging automobiles


Save the SAN LUIS!
Preservation Board hearing concerning the application for demolition of Charles Colbert's iconic DeVille Motor Lodge/San Luis Apartments for a surface parking lot by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Please attend and send our elected officials that the wholesale destruction of the urban fabric for automobile accommodation must end if Saint Louis is to ever aspire to more than regional mediocrity.

1015 Locust Street, Suite 1200
Downtown St. Louis, 63101
4 PM

#2 SUBSIDIZE the installation of productive green roofs
As I covered (in my ghostwriting role) over at the SOS Northside Blog Professor Steven Chu, a Nobel prize winner and President Obama’s nominee for Energy Secretary recently pointed to the problems of heat absorptive roofing in our cities:
“if you take all the buildings and make their roofs white and if you make the pavement more of a concrete type of colour rather than a black type of colour, and you do this uniformly . . . it’s the equivalent of reducing the carbon emissions due to all the cars on the road for 11 years.”

Now the New York Times covers programs that incentivize edible green roofs.

Green roofs are something of a no-brainer. One of the biggest environmental problems for urban areas are rapid stormwater discharges that result from rainfall being channeled across impervious surfaces. Without any surface to absorb or slow the rain the runoff is much more violent and shorter in duration. These pulses erode stream banks, cause flash flooding, carry toxic chemicals into streams and overwhelm combined sewer systems. Cities are faced with the choice to dig up existing systems and separate them (extremely expensive) or devise strategies to reduce runoff input into the system. Green roofs allow water to percolate through vegetative matter, slowing or preventing any runoff.

Edible green roofs go a step farther. As I alluded in an earlier post the availability of nutritious and fresh foods and produce are another challenge facing the underprivileged residents of most cities. By creating edible green roofs as part of a community gardening initiative residents can learn cultivation and maintain a degree of self-sufficiency. Produce from large municipal roof areas such as convention centers and government buildings could be donated to food pantries. Schoolchildren could help participate in the cultivation of the food they eat at lunch. Nutrition would be improved, attendant healthcare costs would be reduced and stormwater runoff-caused pollution would be reduced for a fraction of the cost of other efforts.

Perhaps this could be a federally mandated CBBG-funded program?

More methods coming soon...

How the other half lives

Architecture/Philosophy blog begets Photoblog:
Exquisite Struggle presents FotoFriday

Urban Grocery

New Orleans 2009. Located on Claiborne Ave. at Orleans.
Access to healthy and nutritious foods remain extremely problematic in urban areas. In many socioeconomically depressed neighborhoods produce is non-existent. Partly this results from the relatively low profit margin for fresh foods for small retailers as compared with shelf stable and processed foods. An additional cause for this situation is a perceived lower demand due to a lack of dietary and culinary education. These food deserts result in significantly higher rates of heart disease and diabetes.

Exposure: 0.013 sec (1/80)
Aperture: f/4.5
Focal Length: 50 mm
Exposure: -1.65
ISO Speed: 400
Exposure Bias: 0 EV

Not another ‘Taxpayer’!

"The demolition of office buildings, even nine-story ones, was nothing new, though never before had so many of them been demolished in so short a time. But hitherto these buildings had been torn down to make room for taller, more up to date buildings, which, it was assumed, would make more money. Now, in the depths of the worst depression in the nation's history, the owners were facing a unique situation, in which, said one real estate appraiser in 1934, ‘there is no demand for tall buildings representing the theoretical highest and best use of the site.’... Hence the demolition of buildings... and their replacement by parking lots or one- and two-story garages, which were commonly referred to as ‘taxpayers’ ".

--Robert M. Fogelson "Downtown: Its Rise and Fall 1880-1950. p. 218

The strategy of replacing a viable building with a surface parking lot evolved in the depression years as a way to reduce tax-burden on an underutilized structure. Since property taxes are figured using the assessed value of the building taxes can be greatly reduced by removing the building. This fundamental flaw in our system of taxation that has haunted cities and spurred decentralization for over half a century. While it was initially believed that such underdeveloped uses would be temporary, one only has to look around any city to see that once urban fabric is lost to surface parking the chances of later redevelopment are tenuous.

Saint Louis is an egregious example of this phenomenon. Even during good economic times the number of truly significant buildings with strong redevelopment potential that have been lost for parking should be shocking to any observer. A relatively brief survey of significant buildings recently demolished for parking and service functions would include the following:


4972 Page
Page and Kingshighway
Demolished for a surface lot
Image © Claire Nowak Boyd


Ambassador Theater
9th and Locust
Demolished for US Bank plaza, now to be replaced with parking garage
Image © Toby Weiss


Bronson Hide Building
N. 1st and Morgan Street
Demolished for Parking Lot
Image © Paul Hohmann


Century Building
Olive Street between 8th and 9th
Demolished for an underused parking garage
Image © Rob Powers


City Hospital Tower
Grattan and Carroll
Demolished for a surface lot
Image © Rob Powers


Doctors Building
Euclid and Pine
Demolished for unrealized speculative redevelopment
Image © Michael Allen


Herkert & Meisel Building
910 Washington Avenue
Demolished for a parking garage
Image © Landmarks St. Louis


Hyde Park Corner Building
N. 20th and Farragut
Demolished for Treasurer's Office Parking Lot Expansion
Image © Michael Allen


Livery Stable
Locust and Josephine Baker
Demolished for parking lot
Image © Steve Patterson


Marquette Building Annex
Broadway and Olive
Demolished for a parking garage
Image © Rob Powers


Malcolm Bliss Psychiatric Ward, City Hospital
Grattan and Carroll
Demolished for a surface lot
Image © Rob Powers


Miss Hullings Building
10th and Locust
Demolished for a surface lot
Image © Lynn Josse


Olympia Apartments
West Pine and Vandeventer
Demolished for Parking Lot
Image © Paul Hohmann


Shady Oak Theater
Forsyth between Jackson and Hanley, Clayton
Demolished for a parking lot
Image © Paul Hohmann


Stix School
Euclid and Forest Park
Demolished for a parking garage
Image © Paul Hohmann

The pedigree of these brief examples should speak for itself and we surely must feel a sense of shame as we look over this record. Regardless of economic or demographic trends such broad spoliation hints at an utter lack of confidence in the future of the city. These buildings were built at a time when optimism in Saint Louis led to larger and more daring development, a first rate public infrastructure, and a reputation we have been spoiling for the past half century. As Matt Mourning so succinctly put it:
"Future generations need to know that St. Louis was born as New Orleans and will die as Youngstown, Ohio if we do not make an effort to plug the bleed."

It does not bode well for our civic confidence that we have systematically erased much of the evidence that Saint Louis was ever a major city. It is no secret that my generation is flocking to urban centers. Among the people I knew in high school and college the vast majority have gone to three cities: New York, San Francisco and Chicago. The talented youth of Saint Louis are leaving as well. Without this generation we simply cannot compete. If we are going to attract the young, professional, and creative people that must sustain the city through the twenty first century we have to be urban and we must cast aside the small-minded, divisive and parochial mindset that has sped our downfall.

This brings me to the latest outrage: the Archdiocese of Saint Louis will be meeting next Monday to garner a demolition permit for a ten story hotel tower on Lindell Boulevard in the heart of the Central West End. That building, built as the De Ville Motor Lodge and now known as the San Luis Apartments is an intriguing mid-century modern composition that incorporates two courtyards and parking within the dense urban context of Lindell and Bookends an exceptional block of MCM and 1920's apartment towers unparalleled in Saint Louis.

For more information on the unfolding saga view Alderman Antonio French's story:

While there were initially overtures toward engagement and discussion early in the process

[San Luis Love-In Protest, February 14th 2009]

and the opposition has been decidedly lighthearted the decision by the diocese to push for preliminary demolition review is not only imperious but disrespectful to CWE residents.
I can only hope that the opposition to demolition next Monday is lively and that this is merely a bluff on the part of the diocese.

For further coverage READ the following:

Dotage: 7 Reasons to Save the San Luis
BELT: One Week to Stop a Parking Lot
VanishingSTL: Stop Demolition of the San Luis
Ecology of Absence: Help Stop a New Parking Lot on Lindell

Read the Sample Letter
Email Alderwoman Lyda Krewson
Email the operations officer at the Archdiocese

Attend the preservation board hearing:
June 22, 2009 at 4:00 P.M.
in the Cultural Resources Office of
the Planning and Urban Design Agency
1015 Locust Street, Suite 1200

The GLUE that binds

I was recently honored to win the weekly photography contest of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, GLUE serves as both inspiration and support system to citizens and activists throughout the Great Lakes Region. Glue seeks to advance a progressive agenda and to provide a forum to share success stories about re-urbanizing the rust belt.

The image selected was "Sectional Spaghetti"

The image came from Thanksgiving 2006 on one of my first photography forays into Saint Louis. On that day I struck out to depict the essence of Saint Louis which I assumed lay in the industrial structures along the river that had been the driving influence of the city.

As I have gotten to know the city to a more intimate degree I have come to realize that the essence of the city and indeed the potential of its future vitality comes not from the dim vestiges of its historic might and national power but from the efforts of its citizens that belie its future. The economic stagnation and political indecisiveness that have led Saint Louis to be a shrinking city in a no growth region have also led to the sharp neglect of distinct segments of the population and the generalized neglect of certain aspects of responsibility towards citizens as a whole.

As the winner of the photography contest I was asked to chose my favorite community organization and write about it for the GLUE audience. While there were many deserving organizations that I gave great consideration to such as Bicycle Works it was the decades of selfless service given to the community that influenced by choice of the Karen House of the Catholic Worker Movement and especially the New Roots Urban Farm.

The willingness of citizens to provide service to the community in the absence of government responsibility and the incorporation of bold visions of social justice and sustainability prove to be a vision for the future of the city more compelling than that of a diocese bent on expanding surface parking for automobile entrenched suburban supporters or a developer steamrolling over acres of decaying neighborhoods for seemingly banal corporate campuses

My statement selecting Karen House and New Roots Urban Farm can be found here.